Tag Archives: Will Owen

Proust Progress Report 1: Getting started

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (1913, text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Du côté de chez Swann, première partie, ‘Combray’

Someone on Christopher Lydon’s Open Source podcast recently was talking about À la recherche du temps perdu aka In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past. It was one conversation too many: I decided I had to bite the bullet and read the bloody thing. (My late friend Will Owen almost pushed me over the line in 2014 by writing – here – about his experience with it over several decades. The pressure to read it has been building.)

So I bought a copy of the Gallimard quarto edition, all seven novels in one huge, heavy volume, small print and thin paper, 2401 pages, a bargain at just under $90. If I read 200 pages a month I could get through the whole thing in less than two years. So that’s what I decided to do. Rather than review the books as I finish them, I’ll aim to give a monthly update.

I read the opening words – Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure – about a month ago, and was immediately glad of my decision to read the books in French and not to labour over translation. It’s hard to pin down the meaning of that sentence, and I imagine even harder to reproduce that un-pin-down-ability in English. The commonest version – ‘For a long time I used to go to bed early’ – is clear enough, but the verb’s tense is all wrong: if Proust had meant ‘I used to go to bed’ he would have written ‘je me couchais’. But the more or less literal translation, ‘A long time ago I have gone to bed early’, sounds odd. Maybe it does in the original French, and maybe the translators know that if they write something odd in English the readers will grow suspicious of them … Anyhow, if I even notice such fine points as I read I’m not labouring over them. Nor am I looking up unfamiliar words – and mercifully my years of studying French forty years ago seem to have left me with a fairly adequate passive vocabulary. I do need to reread many of Proust’s famously convoluted sentences, and that, it turns out, is one of the pleasures – to sort out how the parts of what at first looks impossibly complex fit together as in a well-constructed machine.

So I’ve now read ‘Combray’, the first of three parts of the first of the seven novels, Du côté de chez Swann / Swann’s Way. I feel like leaving at that, not because it’s been hard going, but because these 150 or so pages turn out to have been, well, fabulous, and I don’t feel any need to continue. (I will, though.)

After 30 pages in which the narrator (so far we don’t have a name for him) remembers going to bed early as a child and suffering terrible anguish because his mother doesn’t come to give him a goodnight kiss despite a number of ploys to trick her into doing it, he is overwhelmed with memories of his childhood triggered by the smell of a shell-like biscuit dunked in herbal tea. The memories are centred on the summers he and his family spent with an invalid aunt in the village of Combray (A fictional village when he wrote about it, but the village of Illiers, believed to be its model, recently changed its name to Illiers-Combray), and are structured according to the two paths that lead from the aunt’s house to the village church.

That’s it.

And it’s fascinating. A friend told me she’d given up on reading Proust because he’s such a wanker; I said, ‘Yes, but in the original French he’s such an over-the-top wanker that it’s brilliant.’

At least twice I laughed out loud. The first was at a description of asparagus. For me, having to work for each word, there’s a wonderful process of struggling through a thicket of extravagant language describing the extraordinarily subtle colours and imagining the asparagus spears as delightful creatures who had metamorphosed into vegetables to come at the end of the sentence to a relatively plainspoken reference to how asparagus affects bodily functions: ‘changer mon pot de chambre en un vase de parfum‘ / ‘change my chamber pot into a perfumed vase’. (You can read a translation here, though it tones down the early extravagance and then misses the joke by continuing with the elevated language – ‘transforming’ for ‘changer’ and ‘bower of aromatic perfume’ for ‘vase fe parfum’ – until the very end.)

The other laugh-out-loud moment had a similar sense of coming out into the light after struggling through a thicket. The narrator remembers his fascination as a child with water plants swinging back and forth in a current. He likens them to people who wake up each morning resolved to change their lives but always revert to their established self-defeating habits. He ups the ante, invoking Dante’s fascination with the sufferings of the damned, saying that Dante would have liked to have gone on at greater length about those sufferings if Virgil, striding ahead, hadn’t made him catch up, comme moi mes parents / ‘As my parents did me’.

Both these are examples of how fabulously the writing works at a sentence level. I didn’t really worry that it seemed to be going nowhere. I dread to think what a film adaptation would look like. I guess it would have to play up the chaste lesbian frolic the boy accidentally eavesdrops on one evening, or his visit to a beloved uncle and innocently reporting back to his parents about the nice lady who seemed to be living with him, or the comedy about his antisemitic grandfather. But those elements aren’t central. In the last couple of pages of this section he brings it all together. What he has been showing us is a place, and the people in it, that are deeply embedded in his mind, even formed his mind (sans le savoir / ‘without knowing it’), so that he responds to people or places now because, whether he’s aware of it or not, they stir some yearning for that place. ‘The flowers that I am shown for the first time nowadays don’t seem real flowers to me.’

And suddenly it’s profoundly moving. His narrator talks about a future when the paths he describes will be overgrown and the people he saw there will have died, when all that will remain of them will be what he has remembered of what that child saw, and smelled, and thought. I find myself thinking how, of the billions of humans who have ever lived or are living now, every one of them has had their individual rich deep connection to the earth, awarely or otherwise. Few people could articulate it as fully as Proust, even if they wanted to, even if they had the time, but he’s bringing to the foreground something that’s inevitably there for everyone. And then I think about climate change and how, optimistically, we’ve got 12 years to make big changes if the earth, the air and the water are to keep sustaining us. Thank you for listening to my TED Talk.

Added later: I can’t believe I didn’t talk about all the very funny stuff about his family: his aunt who never leaves her room, and won’t let anyone visit her who tries to jolly her into going out, but likewise bans anyone who believes that she is very sick; the maid; M Swann, the neighbour who made an unfortunate match; Swann’s daughter Gilberte, whom the narrator glimpses just once as a vision of loveliness who gives him a vulgar signal, etc. I expect there will be more of that in the coming sections (though probably not of the aunt, whose death has come as a shock because I had come to believe that absolutely nothing was going to happen).

Crossing Cultures with Owen and Wagner

Stephen Gilchrist (editor), Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art (Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College 2012)

Until now I’ve assumed that exhibition catalogues were basically illustrated lists, of little or no interest to anyone who hasn’t been to the event they relate to. The Crossing Cultures catalogue has made me think again. My rethink was given a serendipitous boost by Mary Beard‘s contribution to TLS Books of the Year lists. She wrote:

Let me put in a plea (not for the first time) that we don’t forget the great contribution of exhibition catalogues, which often goes far beyond a simple record of the show concerned.

Like the esoteric-sounding catalogue she had in mind, Crossing Cultures ‘includes some wonderful essays and entries’. The bulk of the book is devoted to ten substantial essays, while the illustrated list – the ‘exhibition checklist’ – takes up less than a quarter of its pages. Since very few of my readers are likely to visit the exhibition (it’s in New Hampshire) or see the catalogue, I’ll give you a quick guided tour. The Art Student’s words when she first flipped through the book echo my own response and serve very well as a TLDR: At last, something that might help me understand some basics about Aboriginal art.

Will Owen kicks things off with an account of how he and Harvey Wagner created the collection of Aboriginal Art which they are now donating to the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College, and which constitutes the exhibition. People often bemoan the influence of collectors as a key part of the commodification of art and the art scene under capitalism. Will’s essay gives a different perspective. It describes how the urge to collect grew from being captivated by the art, and led him and Harvey to build relationships with dealers and artists, and to a deep engagement with ‘the complex social and cultural elements that informed [the art’s] creation’. Will’s blog demonstrates the intelligence, erudition, and passion he has brought to that engagement. (Will and I met online when I blogged about an exhibition of work from Aurukun, at which he and Harvey bought a sculpture over the internet. I think of him as a friend – and our copy of this catalogue is a generous gift.)

Then comes a trio of general articles:

Howard Morphy’s ‘Aboriginal Australian Art in America’ explores the role that US exhibitions and collectors have played in the process by which the non-Aboriginal art world has come to recognise ‘the value and aesthetic power’ of Aboriginal art, beginning with an image from the New York Times in 1941 that juxtaposed a bark painting from western Arnhem Land with paintings by Dali and Miro: decades before anyone would have thought of doing it in Australia, a US exhibition was suggesting an equivalence between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal art. An observation that’s relevant to this exhibition:

The building of collections of Aboriginal art with a historical depth has … happened outside art museums, through the activities of private collectors and ethnographic museums.

In ‘In the Eye of the Storm: Issues Facing Contemporary Indigenous Art in Australia’s Remote Communities’ Brian Kennedy, former director of the NGA, summarises the social and political environment of Aboriginal art in recent decades – he doesn’t name John Howard or Mal Brough, but their dark presences are very much there. The general principle:

Each and every non-Indigenous person who hangs a work of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander art on the wall of his or her home or office thereby publicises Indigenous culture and sooner or later should contemplate the circumstances in which these works are made.

‘Painting the Law: Understanding the Law Stories in Aboriginal Art’ is an overview by N Bruce Duthu of the notion of the Dreaming and the importance of country in Aboriginal cultures. Duthu, a Professor of Native American Studies, quotes tellingly from a number of Aboriginal people, including this exchange between Aboriginal legal scholar Christine Black and David Mowaljarlai, senior law man from the Ngarinyin people of the Kimberley:

‘What about the areas where there are no Aboriginal people surviving, or at least living traditionally there any longer?’

‘You’re wrong there thinking like that. The land remained, you can’t get away from that. It acts for the people and their imprint is still there. If the land sinks into the ocean, the symbols will still be there. Only if the whole continent is blown to pieces and nothing is left of it, then it will be finished.’

Each of the remaining six essays focuses more narrowly

In ‘Daguerreotypes, Stereotypes, and Prototypes: Reframing Indigeneity’ Stephen Gilchrist, curator of the exhibition and editor of the catalogue, discusses photography. Six contemporary photographers are represented in the exhibition: Christian Thompson, Darren Siwes, Destiny Deacon, Bindi Cole, Ricky Maynard and Michael Riley. The essay takes us from a time when photography was a means for colonisers and anthropologists to define Indigeneity to the present when Aboriginal photographers

manage to push through the burdensome expectations of making racially explicit work and instead speak up against the persistent climate of ideological repression.

As the title suggests, Françoise Dussart’s ‘Mediating Art: Painters of Acrylics at Yuendumu (1983–2011)’ focuses on the work of Warlpiri artists in the Central Desert, particularly Yuendemu. After reprising the history of the beginnings of acrylic dot paintings at nearby Papunya, she draws of decades of conversations with Warlpiri artists, she explores the relationship between the acrylic art and the Dreaming stories it reflects, and pushes at the edge of how non-Indigenous people can read and understand the art:

Rooted in colonial and evolutionist views of exchange 
with indigenous peoples, practices of collecting have relied 
and continue to rely too often on sampling, on finding the
 ‘iconic’, on serial individualizing (concentrating on the career of a single artist), and on ‘preserving’. It may be time 
to instead embrace the truly panoramic representation of 
paintings from a specific time and place. Understanding 
the practices of indexicality articulated by Aboriginal painters will likewise force collectors and museums to think beyond sampling practices and the kinds of power relations
 that such practices generally structure.

Jennifer Deger’s ‘Art + Emergence’ focuses on northeast Arnhem Land. Her concern is to take her readers past looking at Yolngu barks and canvases as ‘elaborate messages in need of decoding’, to find ways to ‘sensually encounter’ the works – which means more than just finding them pretty. At the same time she writes very interestingly about the issue of who has the right to tell the stories that are contained in some paintings.

Sally Butler, Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of Queensland, ranges from Cape York to Brisbane in ‘The “Presence” of Queensland Indigenous Art’. Queensland is huge, and the range surveyed in this essay is huge – from traditional Aurukun sculpture to the text-based protest art of Gordon Bennett and the extraordinary variety of Vernon Ah Kee’s work. Sally Butler, like most other contributors, quote artists of more traditional work in ways that indicate political / diplomatic intentions. An old man from Aurukun declared about Kugu Law Poles, ‘ I know your laws: now you can know mine.’

Among other things, Henry F Skerritt’s ‘Strange Relatives: Negotiating the Borderlines in East Kimberley Painting’ tells the story of Rover Thomas, and places his art in the context of Keith Windschuttle’s reactionary revisionism, which prompts me to reflect that if you were looking for a beautifully illustrated introduction to Aboriginal culture, history and politics, including the impact of dispossession, massacre and colonisation generally, as well as the integrity, courage and sheer brilliance of the ongoing struggles of Aboriginal people, you could do a lot worse than this book.

In the final essay, ‘Rethinking Western Desert Abstraction’, anthropologist and curator John Carty argues that in the process of claiming Aboriginal art as fine art rather than ethnographic artefact, ‘we have somehow neglected the basic disciplines of formal and art historical analysis’. Western Desert artists have moved on in their use of traditional forms, becoming increasingly abstracted, but art criticism has not kept pace – he traces the process in the works of ‘the incomparable Emily Kam Kngwarray’:

Her artistic trajectory resonated with the broader history of Western abstraction in ‘impossible’ ways, and yet it also expressed what some have come to interpret a a kind of Indigenous modernism. But the effusive proclamations of Kngwarray’s ‘genius’ have tended to obscure the fact that her dissolution of the structural and iconographic aspects of the aesthetic system was part of a broader creative process in much desert art of recent decades. Kngwarray has become the iconic embodiment of that process, yet singular as she was, her work encompassed developments in the abstractions of desert painting that both preceded and followed her own individual career.

He then gets down to cases, and has a fascinating discussion of concentricity, of dots and their relationship to meaning.

So, it’s not Contemporary Aboriginal Art for Dummies by any means. Each of the contributors speaks from deep knowledge, and many Aboriginal voices are quoted. But, speaking as a dummy, I find it hard to imagine how a single book could do a better job of informing me on the subject. Plus, of course, the images are plentiful, and brilliant.

Still here!

I’m shocked, shocked at how long it is since I last posted. That’s what a bit of paid work and visitors from out of town will do to a blogger’s practice. I’ve signed a confidentiality agreement about at least part of the paid work, but I can blab about the visitors.

Will Owen and his partner Harvey live in North Carolina and are enthusiastic collectors of Aboriginal art. I met Will almost exactly seven years ago when he emailed me after reading my blog post about an exhibition of art from Aurukun, from which he and Harvey had purchased a piece, and we’ve met a number of times in the non-Web world since. Will’s blog, Aboriginal Art and Culture: an American eye, is fabulously erudite, funny, insightful, and broad-ranging. Will in person is all of that and much more ( for example, he can quote slabs of Ezra Pound and knows a lot about Finnegan’s Wake). He and Harvey are in Australia just now, and were in Sydney for nearly a week, flying out this morning. The Art Student and I managed to see quite a bit of them, and it would be hard to imagine two more delightful visitors.

Will gave a brilliant talk about his and Harvey’s collection at the Art Student’s TAFE. We ate at Revolver. We went to Bangarra’s Belonging at the Opera House (Will has already posted a characteristically thoughtful review) and Roxanne McDonald in Windmill Baby at the Belvoir. We ate Italian in Newtown and Lebanese in Surry Hills. We accompanied them to Danks Street where Christopher Hodges of Utopia Gallery took us to the back room and showed us (well, showed Harvey and Will, with the Art Student and I as open-mouthed collateral beneficiaries) more than a score of brilliant work from Papunya Tula artists, rolling the canvases out on the floor. Last night we dragged them off to see Red Dog, a genial outing, though reviews might have warned us that if it’s not a children’s film it could easily pass for one.

After the cold, wet, dull and unprofitable weather of recent weeks, Sydney managed four or five days a deep blue skies and T-shirt weather for their visit (thanks for that, Hughie!). Today it’s grey again.